Gradgrind Takes Over English Classes

Pat Touret, “The Victorian Schoolroom”

The Washington Post ran an article last week that made me as angry as I’ve been in a long time. Apparently, the new Common Core State Standards in English, adopted by 46 states, are prompting English teachers “to figure out which poetry, short stories and novels might have to be sacrificed to make room for nonfiction.”

That’s because literature, as we are informed by “experts” quoted in the article, doesn’t prepare young minds for college or the real world:

Proponents of the new standards, including the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, say U.S. students have suffered from a diet of easy reading and lack the ability to digest complex nonfiction, including studies, reports and primary documents. That has left too many students unprepared for the rigors of college and demands of the workplace, experts say.

The new standards, which are slowly rolling out now and will be in place by 2014, require that nonfiction texts represent 50 percent of reading assignments in elementary schools, and the requirement grows to 70 percent by grade 12.

Among the suggested non­fiction pieces for high school juniors and seniors are Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, FedViews, by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco (2009) and Executive Order 13423: Strengthening Federal Environmental, Energy, and Transportation Management, published by the General Services Administration.

The man who led the effort, David Coleman, defends the standards by saying that they refer to all disciplines together, not just English. He says that if science, math and social studies teachers would only teach more reading, then English teachers would be free to teach literature.

Are you reassured? What could possibly go wrong? Well, this:

In practice, the burden of teaching the nonfiction texts is falling to English teachers, said Mark Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory University: “You have chemistry teachers, history teachers saying, ‘We’re not going to teach reading and writing, we have to teach our subject matter. That’s what you English teachers do.’

Sheridan Blau, a professor at Teachers College at Columbia University, said teachers across the country have told him their principals are insisting that English teachers make 70 percent of their readings nonfiction. “The effect of the new standards is to drive literature out of the English classroom,” he said.

It sounds like Grandgrindism is making a comeback. First No Child Left Behind pushed teachers to teach to the test and now this. Here is Grandgrind giving instructions to M’Choakumchild in the opening paragraph of Dickens’ Hard Times:

NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!

Compare this to a Coleman speech quoted in the article:

“Forgive me for saying this so bluntly, the only problem with ... [that] writing is as you grow up in this world you realize people really don’t give a [expletive] about what you feel or what you think,” Coleman said, according to a recording. “What they instead care about is, can you make an argument with evidence, is there something verifiable behind what you’re saying or what you think or feel that you can demonstrate to me? It is rare in a working environment that someone says, ‘Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday, but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.’

Coleman is delivering a caricature of what English teachers do. If they teach the personal essay, it is so that students will realize that writing is not a formula or an empty rhetorical shell but words used to greater purpose. The blindness of Grandgrindian thinking lies in the notion that imagination is not involved in critical thinking. Or as one teacher puts it in the Washington Post article,

Reading for information makes you knowledgeable — you learn stuff. But reading literature makes you wise.

Exactly. Wise people figure out how to write market analyses when the occasion calls for them to do so. They have learned how language works and can therefore adapt it for their purposes. I have many former liberal arts students writing reports in the work world, including my son Darien, a one-time theater major who now runs a marketing company.

I could go into a lengthy disquisition about the deep emotional, intellectual and spiritual learning that comes from an engagement with literature. Instead, I’ll settle for a great Pat Conroy quotation I came across recently that talks about what his English teachers gave him:

The world of literature has everything in it, and it refuses to leave anything out. I have read like a man on fire my whole life because the genius of English teachers touched me with the dazzling beauty of language.

Because of them I rode with Don Quixote and danced with Anna Karenina at a ball in St. Petersburg and lassoed a steer in Lonesome Dove and had nightmares about slavery in Beloved and walked the streets of Dublin in Ulysses and made up a hundred stories in the Arabian nights and saw my mother killed by a baseball in A Prayer for Owen Meany. I’ve been in ten thousand cities and have introduced myself to a hundred thousand strangers in my exuberant reading career, all because I listened to my fabulous English teachers and soaked up every single thing those magnificent men and women had to give. I cherish and praise them and thank them for finding me when I was a boy and presenting me with the precious gift of the English language.

Unfortunately, Conroy’s reading didn’t prepare him for the real world. Just think, he could have been reading Executive Order 13423: Strengthening Federal Environmental, Energy, and Transportation Management.


Thanks to my colleague Beth Charlebois for alerting me to the Washington Post article. Pat Touret’s illustration can be found at

This entry was posted in Dickens (Charles) and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

  • Sign up for weekly newsletter

    Your email will not be shared or sold.
    * = required field

    powered by MailChimp!
  • Twitter Authentication data is incomplete